New plays are easy to come by in D.C., but new comedies are not. And so, the first compliment that must be paid to The Shoplifters is thank God for a world premiere that is not also a droll history lesson, or an attempt to explore the human condition by myopically focusing on one dysfunctional relationship. Arena Stage gave D.C. plenty of such plays last season, with Camp David in the first category and Velocity of Autumn in the latter. Neither set a gold standard for new drama.
The Shoplifters is not amazing, but it’s smart, well-acted, and pretty funny. Stalwart Broadway character actress Jayne Houdyshell stars as Alma, an irascible low-income regular at a mid-America supermarket who’s caught with a prime cut of steak up her skirt. With a set stacked high with boxes of Heinz, Hunt’s, and Hershey’s, this is much more likely Giant than Loblaws. Canadian playwright Morris Panych also directs, and he and his partner, set designer Ken MacDonald, will need to make some edits if they try to take the play back to home. Both work regularly at the Shaw Festival, a worthwhile theater destination in the Ontario town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Smith directed My Fair Lady there in 2011, and Shaw artistic director Jackie Maxwell directed Good People here last year. Shoplifters continues the positive binational trend.
Onstage, Houdyshell is joined by Delaney Williams and Adi Stein, both playing grocery store security officers whose jobs have been complicated by security cameras. That Williams, perhaps best known as the lazy, vindictive, donut-chugging Detective Jay Landsman on The Wire should now be playing a rent-a-cop who steals Oreos from a stockroom is a satisfying pleasure. In Shoplifters he makes a convincing softie—one who is interested in reclaiming merchandise if it costs more than $5.99, not pressing charges for petty theft. Then into the store comes Stein as his new vigilante trainee, and the mercy jig is up.
The play clocks in at only 90 minutes, counting intermission, and the scenes fly by like a chilly shopper trying to get in and out of the freezer section. Panych sets up sparring rounds for every possible combination of his actors: Williams and Stein, Stein and Houdyshell, Houdyshell and her accomplice (played by Jenna Sokolowski), and so on. The finest pairing is Williams and Houdyshell, not only because they excel at portraying good-hearted, flawed schlumps, but because their characters are the most fleshed out. Sokolowski and Stein play oddballs who would benefit from more colorful backstories: Phyllis is a coat-check clerk who lives in a housing project, and Dom is an orphan who found Jesus. He casually references the time he nearly murdered his foster parents and hanged himself. It would be better if he spouted more non sequiturs and fewer religious clichés.
“God never deserts us; he watches over us all the time, only we almost would never know it. Like the closed circuit cameras in this store,” Dom tells Phyllis, shortly before she kneels to fake her own sinner’s prayer. In Dom’s odd amalgam of Christian theologies, shoplifting equals sinning. He can’t work a walkie-talkie, but he can take down a confession ridden with grammatical errors. Williams’ character promptly tears that up. Even surrounded by giant stacks of Pine-Sol and Woolite, these characters have gotten themselves into an ethical mess. Panych may be gesturing broadly about moral turpitude, but his funniest moments play out in small details. No one can solve America’s income inequity problem in 90 minutes, but everyone loves a character with the entire makings of a birthday cake shoved down her bra and stashed in her purse.
“The Shoplifters” is on stage at 1101 6th St. SW. $40-$70. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org